Speaking the same language but not speaking from the same culture can sometimes be worse than speaking different languages. I remember when our family first landed in Beijing it was night time and the buildings were lit up with lights. Traveling back from the airport there was an excitement of being in a new country, in a new city, as well as beginning a new adventure for our family. With one of our foreign hosts in the car with us, I said that this city is really beautiful. He responded that it was only because it was night. I remember thinking what a pessimist. I felt as though he burst my bubble and I thought he was saying he didn’t like it there. Since then, I have come to know this American was just expressing a part of Chinese culture I would encounter repeatedly. If there is a compliment given, culture demands that a balance be given (ying and yang, compliment and insult). I don’t know if this foreigner even was aware of his inculturation and the lack of understanding that it had on a fresh and wide eyed co-worker. Understanding the context in which you live is important for clear communication to be had.So often believing we speak the same language and/or are from the same country, we fail to recognize the subtle mistakes (traps) that lead us to failures in communication.
Reading Erin Meyer’s book, The Culture Map: Decoding How People Think, Lead, and Get Things Done Across Cultures, brought many examples to mind; some funny and others tragic. This very easy to read, yet difficult to live book, is one all should read and take time to discuss. As my dissertation will involve helping westerners working with Han Chinese understand the subtle narratives of the culture in order to communicate Christ effectively, this book resonates with me as an important piece in working cross culturally.
Erin Meyer makes a statement that I think could be made by most of those working in ministry as well, “…the vast majority of managers who conduct business internationally have little understanding about how culture is impacting their work.” The key to effective communication has to do with understanding one’s audience and not letting our own personal agendas dictate the conversation, lecture or meetings we are having. From time to time there have been individuals that come highly recommended to do some training times. Over the years we have learned to better vet the teachers before they come. Others time we purposefully sit a foreign team member in the training session to help navigate some of the roadblocks, misunderstandings, and cultural miscommunications that often take place. Let me give you an extreme (but true) example that happened when there was not a foreigner present to help save the situation. Just so you know, the Chinese are gracious with a guest and want to save face limiting confrontation as well. All of that lead to a perfect storm for a class that still is talked about today. The class was an introduction to the New Testament. The teacher was recommended and invited to come teach the course. As part of the introduction to himself, He began to talk about his belief that women should not be in any kind of leadership. He went on for over 30 minutes talking about not just women in leadership in any aspect of the church but also in any aspect of leadership…anywhere. He then described why he believed this way and then moved to Scriptures justifying his stance. This Taiwanese Christian man spoke great mandarin and clearly was confident in his point. He knew his culture and was ready to defend it. He spoke the same language but not the same culture. To make things worse, there were 16 students in this class of which 11 were women called by God to be leaders. So I will say that the next several days were a bit awkward and we had some damage control once he left and found out what took place in this class. Obviously this professor has never come back again, as well as we have increased our interviewing questions for people that have not been personally known by the instructors or the leaders of this particular school. When we have our own agendas, we are blind to the social and societal cues taking place.
There are so many things within the Chinese culture that I could talk about that Meyer highlights in her book; from flexibility of time, standing in (or lack of) lines or the avoidance of conflict. However as an egalitarian leader, I have struggled with the hierarchy that is naturally built into this Confucius culture. In university, I wanted the students to call me Greg. We compromised with Mr. Greg (Or Teacher Greg). This gave them the ability to show respect with a title as well as be a little more western like I asked them to. Also there are many team meetings and many big book studies where reverence is given to the leader and discussion is often stifled. I have even embarrassed some by not recognizing the subtleties of who is ready to respond and who is not. Over the years I became aware of what to look for in a person that has a comment and the telltale signs of someone trying to let me know that they do not want to be called on. Unfortunately, those were lessons I had to learn by many mistakes rather than by reading a book.
Erin Meyers book on decoding the subtleties of culture, I believe is essential for people who are working cross culturally. I am one to believe that culture infests all areas of life; in every country; every state or city. How we understand and work within the context of these cultures helps us to be able to see our limitations. While we are swimming in the deep end of cross-cultural uncertainties, it is important for us to humbly admit our own inadequacies and that we may never truly master the complexities of these types of communications. The hope comes in knowing that in relationships, grace is often given as we seek forgiveness for the number of times we stuck our foot in our mouths. The Lord is honored as we seek his will and his knowledge above our own.
- Meyer, Erin.The Culture Map: decoding how people think, lead, and get things done across cultures. BBS Public Affairs (New York. 2014) 10